Global violence is the problem, not student radicalisation

Radical thought should be allowed to flourish on campuses around the world as a healthy expression of academic freedom, but universities must be able to help prevent violence, said an eminent panel of university leaders speaking at the British Council’s Going Global conference in London on 2 June.

The expert panel sought to draw a dividing line between student ‘radicalisation’ and violent extremism in wider society which too often had become conflated.

Mohammed Farouk, vice-chancellor of Federal University, Kashere, Nigeria – situated in an area where Boko Haram is active – said student radicalisation needed to be removed from the terrorism debate.

“In my experience in Nigeria in the 1970s it was almost a rite of passage for students to become radicalised, to question, to take on issues of social justice. But today, ‘radicalisation’ now becomes equated with terrorism and other forms of extreme violence,” he said.

“I see radicalisation as more of a process that challenges the status quo, rejects the status quo and takes on existing ideas in society. Radicalisation needs to be taken away from terrorism.”

Marie Breen-Smyth, a professor of international politics at the University of Surrey, UK, who has researched the effect on societies of political violence in Ireland, the Middle East and South Africa, told the conference she had been radicalised while growing up in troubled Northern Ireland in the 1970s. “For me radical thought is an important aspect of being a scholar,” she said.

Louise Richardson, vice-chancellor of the University of St Andrews, Scotland, and an expert on terrorism noted there needed to be a distinction between radical ideas and incitement to violence.

“Radical ideas belong in universities. The idea that the world was round was once a radical idea,” she said.

“It’s imperative that we have a place where ideas can be expressed and challenged, and universities are the ideal place for that.”

Education is an ‘antidote’

In Richardson’s view, education is an antidote to extremism, as terrorists tend to have an over-simplified view of the world. “Education robs you of that simplification and certitude,” she said.

Bill Rammell, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and a former UK higher education minister, said “to be a radical is to want better for your community, your society, your country and want to see change”. But he said not enough is understood about the process of radicalisation and what prompts someone “to move across the boundary to be prepared to commit acts of violence”.

He said he had become convinced during his tenure as minister, particularly after the London bombings in July 2005, “that academic freedom, open scrutiny, debate, testing your received wisdom” was one of the best means for tackling extremism.

He also voiced concerns about counterterrorism legislation in the UK that blurs the line between radicalisation or extremism of a non-violent nature and that of a violent nature.

“That approach will ultimately be counter-productive in that it will feed the narrative of grievance and victimhood on which the violent extremists rely,” he said.

Extremism and universities

Several panel members also questioned any intrinsic link between universities and radicalisation.

“Violent extremists are often young men and they often congregate in universities,” said Richardson, who has recently been nominated as the first woman vice-chancellor of Oxford University.

“The most combustible combination is an educated workforce in an economy that cannot allow them to realise the expectations that have been heightened by their education,” she added pointing to extremism in Peru.

Muhammad Ali Shaikh, vice-chancellor of Sindh Madressatul Islam University in Karachi, Pakistan, told University World News that the massification and growth of universities was heightening the view that universities are hotbeds of extremism. “We now have a larger number of students and they are drawn from all sectors of society and from society that is in turmoil. Within the universities, they will reflect that turmoil around them.”

Fazal Ahmad Khalid, vice-chancellor of the University of Engineering and Technology, Lahore, Pakistan, said only a limited number of people hold radical or extreme views and universities have to learn to devise mechanisms for counselling and providing guidance to help them develop “a more balanced view about life”.

“The universities in Pakistan are vigilant and are taking measures. This is a national issue and has to be tackled accordingly,” he said. But he also cautioned that universities in Pakistan may have overreacted in the aftermath of the Peshawar attacks in December.

Breen-Smyth noted that the threat of terrorist violence is often exaggerated. “Threat exaggeration serves a particular interest in society to make money out of counter-terrorism and security. That’s not to say there isn’t a threat, there is, and we need to be concerned about it, but let’s get it into perspective,” she said.

“I would put education in schools and universities about violence and alternatives to violence. We need to equip young people with an understanding of how to organise campaigns and impact on their world in a non-violent and democratic way,” she said.